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Twilight of the Gods: 37. A Lecture on Easterling Culture
Chapter 37 – A Lecture on Easterling Culture
The Easterlings had been urged to leave by the older Rohirrim, but while Gishvané hurried to escape the menacing Lord of Westfold, the young woman remained near the entrance, waiting until the King of Gondor left the tent. His face was worried and still reticent, and that expression did not change when he asked her,
"Did you know they were beasts?"
Immediately she felt the same pressure the King of Rohan had put on her with his questions. Though both kings had told them that they would not kill the Easterlings for their wrong-doing and support of the Dunlendings, she felt a cold hand grab her core. She tried to convince him with frankness.
"Some of us sensed they were different. There were rumours… and some signs of claws." She followed the king as he went to his tent to fetch his pipe. She had never seen such a thing before and stared at it, forgetting what she was about to say. He filled the pipe and lit it, and only by his glance did she realise that she had stopped talking. "No one had ever seen… them as beasts." He stood in front of the tent, and she knelt at a due distance, unable to lift her gaze from that wooden thing, now that columns of smoke rose from it. "But some had wondered how… They brought goats and calves… and there were no wounds from blades in them."
"But you said to me that I was being attacked by the gods. What did that mean?"
Ridasha found it incredibly hard to hold the man's stare. It seemed to her that she could recall every word she had exchanged with him, and with every line she felt even more guilty. Though it had not been she who had hit and tormented him -- even in the moment when he had tried to help -- she had done nothing to prevent it. She had obeyed her leader to the last moment. All the wounds that he carried now were accusing her that she had willingly ignored the man's misery. Somehow, she thought, it would have been easier to be punished than to be treated with leniency.
"The high priestesses said the Jásheni were sent by the gods." She hesitated, searching for words. "They were powerful… and their leadership undeniable. But no one thought them to be… beasts of prey. And I don't think that anyone of the other tribes knew."
Still smoking, he pursed his lips.
"Those who fled – were they only of the tribe of the Jásheni?" She nodded. "No other tribe holds that ability? One whom we have not seen yet?"
"No. No one." She feared he would not believe her as he bit down on the wooden mouth-piece, his tension and anger rising. "Only the Jásheni. They came from the eastern side of the Sea."
"And now they are conquering Ithilien." He exhaled, and Ridasha's eyes widened at the sight of smoke blowing from his nostrils. Aragorn was moving again, unable to shake off the restlessness that had gripped him the moment Ridasha had unveiled the Easterlings' conspiracy. He stopped, turned and pierced her with his stare. "How many Easterlings have gathered at Dagorlad?"
She gaped at him, but then realised that as the King of Gondor he had known the whole time that there had been movements east of the borders of his land.
"I cannot tell… two thousand maybe. Maybe more. I left too early to…"
"Two thousand…" Aragorn could not breathe. All air was suddenly sucked out of his lungs. He felt drawn to his horse to saddle up and ride back immediately. Even if Prince Faramir gathered the men under arms he would find it difficult to throw the enemies back. The mere thought of his friend being confronted by Easterlings turning into predators was dreadful. "How many of the Jásheni?" he demanded to know. "With how many of these… beasts will they attack?"
"The Jásheni-Rhûvenan is a big tribe, many people, old and young… and they said that still not all of them had crossed the great Sea."
"How many of them hold that ability?" he pressed.
"I cannot say!" she replied with a desperate undertone. "I told you, no one ever got to know what they can do! It was as surprising for us as it was for you!"
Aragorn forced himself to come to a halt and calm down. He could do nothing while still in Dunland. Éomer was too weak to ride back immediately, and even if he could leave, it would take them at least three weeks to get back to Minas Tirith and to muster all the soldiers who had been sent to help with the harvest. He feared that the Prince of Ithilien was outnumbered, even if he had summoned the greater forces of Minas Tirith and Osgiliath. He had to ride back as soon as his own strength allowed.
"King Éomer will not command you to stay in Rohan for all time," he stated composed again. "So it is up to your people where they will head."
Ridasha glanced at her kindred, as they busied themselves. Gishvané was among them, ordering them to prepare the meals. Her features turned sad as she faced the king again.
"We cannot go back to Rhûn," she replied lowly. "We can never go back."
Aragorn's pipe had burnt down and he knocked it out at a stone.
The sadness of regret and loss deepened in her tanned face.
"We are disgraced, King of Gondor. The warrior we set our hopes in was defeated, and we have to obey the rules of the winner. And if he does not take us into his service… No member of any tribe can expect to be taken back."
"You would be outcast?" Aragorn denied himself to shake his head about the strange cultural rites when she nodded. "What will you do then?"
Again she glanced at the other side of the camp. Until yesterday evening she had hoped to return to Rhûn to stay or – even better – to settle on new lands west of their devastated home. Harishdane had told them so many good things about the fertile soil that she could almost see the sharos graze there and become fat with wool and meat. The whole population would have been able to sustain themselves through the breeding of those animals.
"If we go back," she answered returning her attention to him, wondering briefly where he had left the strange wooden thing, "we will be ordered to fight against your people, which we cannot do. And after that our tribes will… order us to work for them."
"They would make you their servants? Though you are of the same tribe, the same kin?"
"It is their right. And since we agreed to never fight against Rohan or Ithilien, I do not know what we should do." She evaded his disbelieving stare. "It has never happened before. Release from serving…" Her mouth twitched. "Don't expect all of my kin to regard this as generosity, King Elessar."
He frowned and crouched to look into her face.
"But why not? Why would your people not want to be free?"
Ridasha locked eyes with him.
"You still do not understand, do you? King Éomer's mercy leaves us with nothing. If he had ordered us to work for his tribe we would have had a task… something worth doing. Something we could be proud of, even if it was but taking care of the horses. But now he leaves us bereft of everything. We cannot go home, we cannot fight, but we also could not return to this place. The Dunlendings do not accept us. They consider us haughty, and they are probably right." She pushed back a strand of hair which had fallen over her cheek. "Now… Gishvané will tell us what we shall do if the King of Rohan rejects us."
Only then Aragorn realised how different the Easterling culture was from his own.
"But you belong to your homeland."
"Yes…" It was a sigh of loss. "But it will never be again like it was before. If my tribe learns about the incidents, they will consider me the lowest member… if they allow me to live among them at all."
"And Harishdane? She fled with her kin."
Ridasha frowned and, shaking her head slightly, let her gaze wander over the mountain side.
"I cannot tell. She is the leader in wartime, and she will take the place of Lomarin the moment she returns."
"So you are sure she has left Dunland?"
"I am. There is no reason for her to linger here. You would have been…" She quickly averted her eyes and pressed her lips tight, cursing inwardly about her foolishness.
Ridasha did not want to follow the request, but he left her no chance to evade it. Summoning her courage she said hesitantly,
"You already know, do you not? I now understand why she wanted you to be marked, even if it angered the goddess." She swallowed, still unable to meet his gaze. "She would have taken you to Rhûn to… to present you to her tribe, to show her dominance. And…" Her shoulders sagged. The Gondorian King waited patiently for her to continue, and she wished nothing more than to be somewhere else. "And no leader from Gondor would have dared to attack us." She finally found the strength to look up. "Like the King of Rohan, none of your leaders at home would ever risk your life, would they?"
Somewhere in his mind the idea had already existed, but to hear the truth from an Easterling left Aragorn breathless. He would have become the armoured shield of that Easterling beast, brought to the front to demonstrate her power… and the utter defeat of his army. Aragorn knew that Faramir would have chosen any path to save his life, even if it meant surrendering without a fight.
Aragorn stood. His heart beat fast, and with the painful knowledge of almost having become the reason for his land's downfall, he asked Ridasha to return to her people.
He needed to be alone.
During the day the Easterlings watched the members of the winning tribe taking care of their horses, preparing meals, polishing bridles and keeping the watch, though neither another Easterling nor Dunlending approached the campsite. The men and women from the east felt scrutinised by each Rohirrim who passed them by, casting glances at them ranging from distrusting to hateful. The Gondorian soldiers had told their Rohan allies about the week of captivity, and amid the shaking of heads and shouts of disbelief and disgust, some men had threatened to avenge the evil deeds the Easterlings had subjected their friends to. Ridasha noticed the older leader of the Rohirrim end those hate-filled debates and the King of Gondor called back the one stout man among his warriors, and after that no further accusations were heard. The hatred remained visible, however, and no order could change that. According to Gishvané, their captors had reason to be angered since Harishdane had treated the men improperly, but that explanation held only cold comfort for Ridasha. She watched King Elessar in conversation with his men and with the Rohirrim commander. Shortly afterward a rider left the camp, heading southwards, and the King of Gondor disappeared into the royal tent as he had done repeatedly since the sun had risen. Though he appeared to be worn out, he did not rest, and while alone he sat aside from his men, bowing his head. One of his soldiers stood nearby, granting him solitude while he watched his back. Ridasha could read in the face of that soldier, who always stayed close to his ruler, that he too was grieving. She finally understood why his men had tried everything and had taken the punishment so lightly for the sake of their monarch. Instinctively, she touched the healed wound above her knee. He was a healer and a king at the same time. Harishdane must have feared him too much to force him through the mountains like any other prisoner. She had wanted him as a slave for her tribe from the moment he had fallen under her custody. Ridasha shook her head. Her leader had committed treason against her own people, had broken the agreement among the tribes for the sake of her own dominance. But none of the tribal members back in Rhûn or Northern Ithilien would know of these facts when Harishdane returned with Sisune and Nisenur to reclaim leadership. She could tell any plausible lie she liked, and continue to follow her plan. Ridasha shivered. Harishdane had turned out to be the bane of her people.
Aragorn had not been able to hide his restlessness from his friend while taking care of the younger man's wounds. Too long had they known each other, and the King of Rohan worried too much to grant himself the necessary time to regain his strength. After another night without much sleep, Aragorn found the camp on the verge of breaking up. The horses were already bridled and all packs securely stowed. The men watched him as he passed, but then went about their business, while the Easterlings gathered their few belongings. Still Aragorn could not believe it. Had Éomer ordered the majority of his men to ride back while he remained behind? It could not be. Quickly he strode over to his friend's tent, already hearing the marshal's clear voice from outside.
"Éomer, no! Of all the daring ideas you've ever had, this one is the worst! It is utterly foolish! Your wounds have barely begun to heal, you will rip open your stitches again, and that will be the end of it!" Elfhelm glowered at his king who – drenched in sweat – sat on one of the makeshift chairs they had commandeered from the submissive Easterlings and – with the help of their healer – was putting on his boots.
"We cannot delay our return. Ithilien may already be under attack." He gritted his teeth as Tolgor moved his injured leg and turned his head as Aragorn was announced by the guard outside. A moment later, the King of Gondor entered, and Éomer saw himself confronted with three reluctant men.
"There may be need for haste, Éomer," Aragorn tried to talk sense into his friend, siding with Elfhelm, "but you are in no condition to ride yet. Let another day pass. Grant yourself some more time."
The younger man narrowed his eyes as he testingly shifted part of his weight onto his bad leg. The pain drained the colour from his face.
"More time? A day? Two? And then I shall be healed? Not even your superior healing skills can make that happen." He would have snorted, but thought better of it. His nose still hurt too much. Leaning back on the chair and collecting his strength for the effort that lay before him, he looked at the Gondorian. "Even if it weren't for the oath I have taken and our friendship, I would still have to go. Éowyn is in danger, Aragorn, and that Easterling beast would have had to kill me to prevent me from riding to her aid!"
"Lady Éowyn stays in the White City, my friend, she will not be in danger." But exhaling he knew that no argument would change Éomer's mind. Still he dreaded the idea that King Éomer would try and mount his horse.
The King of Rohan shifted his attention back to his marshal.
"Are the men ready, Elfhelm?"
"The men are ready," the Lord of Westfold replied pointedly, still indicating his obvious reluctance, which Éomer chose to ignore.
"My friend," Aragorn tried again, "send riders to the Westfold and further to the Eastfold to summon the éoreds, let them prepare for departure to Gondor, but you should stay here. At least for a while." The King of Rohan shot him a fierce glance. "Lord Elfhelm is right. You are in no shape to ride. "
"I could see it in your eyes the moment the plan was unveiled that you wanted to depart immediately," Éomer replied, holding his friend's stare. "But not even you were able to do so on that day. And now I will not be the reason for you to linger here."
"You are right. It is I who must leave at once. It is my kingdom that will be conquered. If you grant me two éoreds to accompany me I will be grateful, but you should not ride with us." Éomer's glare was unrelenting. "Would you send a wounded man to the field? Even for our friendship I would not expect you to ride with me to Ithilien. You killed Asentis. Your deed was done when you freed us."
"My decision has already been made."
"Éomer, there is still a parley ahead with the Dunlendings, the results of which you do not know. You should not leave…"
Rohan's ruler turned to his marshal again, leaving Aragorn to swallow his last argument.
"Have our captives been dispersed? Each of our men has one of them in front of him in the saddle?"
"Aye, my lord." Elfhelm looked unhappy. Their riders had been dumbfounded when he had brought them the king's orders that the Easterling captives had to be taken along on horseback. "Still I do not know whether…"
"I do not care for any more 'ifs' or 'whethers,' marshal. It is time." Éomer's patience was at an end, and it showed. A curt nod. "Help me up."
With a deep breath and an equally deep frown, as he cast the waiting Aragorn a brief glance in search for help, the Lord of Westfold stepped forth and, together with Tolgor, pulled his king to his feet without too much care. If Éomer didn't listen to his well-meant advice, he'd have to feel for himself. For a brief moment, their eyes met, then the Rohirrim king took a first apprehensive step, and even though he was determined not to let his weakness show, especially not to the older man, he barely succeeded in keeping a straight face. The pain was severe. Yet he would not step out in front of his éored and their foes hanging between Elfhelm and Tolgor like a sack of meal. He would walk on his own.
"Get me my lance, Tolgor!" Breathing deeply, his eyes cast in concentration at the ground, Éomer summoned what strength was left in his body and gratefully accepted his spear from the hand of his healer, to use it as a crutch. "Let us go."
He stepped out of the tent and squinted in the intense sunlight. After more than a day spent in the muted twilight of the tent, it was assaulting his throbbing head, and he had to halt for a second to regain his balance. The guard to his left indicated a curt bow.
"It is good to see you on your feet again, sire. Shall we pull down the tent then?"
"You shall." Éomer could not remember the man's name, and when he looked at what had been an extensive campsite over the past days, his attention was captured by the brimming activity all around him. Their horses had already been saddled and bridled, and apart from the Easterlings' tents, which would remain where they were because no horses were available to carry the additional weight, the camp had already been broken. All movement ground to a halt, however, as the first men recognised their king. It was Thor's voice which announced him, and after a moment of silence, Éomer stepped forth under an eruption of cheers, nodding in acknowledgement of the men's good wishes as he passed them.
At last, he spied his huge, black stallion at the end of the line… and furrowed his brow as he became aware of the fact that the wonderful creature was about to be used as a pack-horse. There was no room left on Battleaxe's back for his master, and the reins had been tied to the saddle of the horse in front of him, which was Elfhelm's dark bay. Irritated, Éomer turned to his marshal.
"What is this supposed to mean?"
"You are riding with me, my lord." Elfhelm cared not what the men of his éored thought upon hearing him talking in this fashion to their king. "I will not let you mount that black demon and pull all your stitches in the process." He met Éomer's indignant look unflinchingly and motioned for three of his strongest men to help their ruler onto Éon's back, while he directed his steed closer to a rock to make the process as easy as possible. Still believing it to be madness, what Éomund's son was about to do. In order to have sufficient space for Éomer, he was riding the great bay unsaddled, with nothing more than the saddle-cloth. It would make it harder for the wounded man to mount and stay on the horse's back once his conscious would be reeling from the pain, but that was none of Elfhelm's concerns. He knew how to keep an unconscious man on horseback. It was something an apprentice learnt in his first year. If it really was Éomer's will to subject himself to this torture, it was not his place to object. Pulling the reins, he brought Éon to a stop next to the rock and extended his hand to help.
It was an awkward moment. The attention of both his men and their captives was focussed on him, Éomer realised, as he stared at the rock he had to climb on to mount the stallion's unsaddled back; yet he could see no way of achieving his goal. He could not even decide which leg to lead with, as the left one would not hold his weight, let alone be moved.
"Sire?" The men walked up to him, offering helping hands, and yet the indignity of the whole situation made Éomer swallow. All were waiting… for him. Gritting his teeth, he shifted yet more weight onto his provisional crutch and thus, his injured leg, as he set the right foot onto the rock. He could barely manage not to cry out. Through the pounding of his heart in his ears, he heard the encouraging words of the soldiers as they slipped their hands under his shoulders and around his waist, somehow -- by prodding and lifting and tugging -- succeeding in helping him up. A nauseating wave of agony ravaged his body, stealing his breath and strength away, and he had not even yet made onto the horse's back. Directly in front of him was Elfhelm's broad face with its sceptical expression, and only the doubt in his marshal's eyes enabled Éomer to seize the warrior's hand and half-crawl, half let himself be wrestled onto the bay's back. When he finally slipped his injured leg over, the pain proved too much for his waning restraint, and the suppressed groan turned into an anguished yell.
Barely conscious, the fingers of his good hand dug into the stallion's mane. He would not fall. Whatever happened now, they would have to cut him down. He would not fall. Through the daze came Elfhelm's voice, and the steadying strength of his marshal's arms, holding him.
"Are you set?"
"Whatever happens, Elfhelm, don't stop. Just keep me on Éon's back."
"If that is your will, sire, it shall be so." Elfhelm's very formal address told Éomer volumes, yet he barely cared as he readied himself for the stallion's moves, his hand cramping into the black mane so tightly that his fingernails dug into his palm. "Rohirrim, let's move!" A brief, fast trot, and then the bay jumped without transition into a hunting gallop. After four more leaps, the King of Rohan had sunk into darkness.
Like the others Ridasha had been utterly surprised and frightened, at the same moment, when she heard that they were expected to sit on those mighty horses the Rohirrim treated with so much care. Getting closer she felt small and weak compared to the waiting beasts, and her heart beat fast. At the loud neighing of one of the horses, an Easterling stepped back, petrified, and the bystanders laughed heartily. But there was no other choice, and Gishvané's feeble attempt at talking the Rohirrim out of their intentions had been rewarded with a statement in Rohirric which had roused gales of laughter from the soldiers, but left the Easterlings with the dreadful prospect of having to stay on horseback the whole day… and more to follow. Gishvané gave in, and a strong hand pulled her up as if she weighed no more than a bedroll. Ridasha was one of the last to be summoned, and up to her came a man she had noticed due to his dark hair and features, which were different from the usual Rohirrim soldier.
"You can ride on my horse," he stated, and when she swallowed nervously, he added, "He's got quite a light step." She gave in with a nod and reluctantly allowed him to pull her up. "You got a name?" And when she told him, he answered, "I am Thor."
She clasped her arms around his waist and held even tighter when the black took the first steps. The others of her kin felt the same uneasiness, and she could read anxiety and insurmountable fear in their features. Some women of the Mushéni-tribe had learned to ride in order to bring messages from Dunland to Rhûn, but she had never wanted to get close to these mighty animals. She glanced around. The King of Rohan had been lifted onto Marshal Elfhelm's horse, but his face was of telltale pallor and he clenched his teeth with each of the animal's moves. Considering the wounds Asentis had inflicted on him, she admired his stamina to ride at all, but – due to the obviously great strength this man possessed – she deemed it a wise choice, since no one could tell for certain whether Dunlendings or her own kin would not return to this place sooner or later. Ridasha's gaze found the King of Gondor. Though he had mounted on his own, his features told her that he dreaded the ride too, and not only out of concern for Éomer-king. His soldiers gathered around him, and the Easterling woman found it to be a very strange group to ride through the land of the hillmen.
Hilberon had been delighted to see Harolyan again and had almost embraced the big stallion. It was such a delight and relief to know that he would not only return home, but that the horse he had been lent would still carry him. With care he had bridled and saddled him and now that the journey homeward began he felt light-hearted. They were free – all of them! And Halamin had comforted him that the captain would never have wanted another death than to die for his ruler. It was with undertones of pride that Halamin and Tarés too had told of Captain Fáred's deeds, and for that reason the young soldier felt relieved, and looked forward to telling his father about his adventures. That pleasure of anticipation could not even be spoiled by Dumarin's foul mood. The way the stout soldier looked at the Easterling captives, Hilberon could guess without any experience that he would rather have preferred to dispose of that tribal people right here than take them back to the Rohan realm. But after the king's reprimand the day before, Dumarin had kept his thoughts and attitude to himself, but spoke to no one. Neither Tarés nor Halamin had been able to persuade him to the king's opinion. His only reaction had been that those Easterlings were responsible for the captivity and torment they all had had to go through. He had said no more, but Hilberon understood that the week in the hands of the enemies had changed them all in a certain way. Glancing at the frightened faces, now that the people from the east had to learn how to ride, he still felt wrath in him. The Gondorians had not been treated well during the past seven days, and if the king had ordered him to, Hilberon would have fought the Easterlings with all he had. At the same time he realised that those responsible for the capture and the ill treatment had fled their verdict. The remaining soldiers still were enemies, but he did not feel the urge -- as Dumarin did -- to sentence them.
The first day on horseback stretched into endless hours of uneasiness and pain, like a cold winter's night without a fire. The Rohirrim could not wait to get rid of their unwelcome captives, while the Easterlings would have preferred to run the whole day just to elude the hard shakes the horses gave them with every step. And while the severe pain from his wounds kept King Éomer floating in and out of consciousness, Aragorn endured the ride stoically, and it was only when he at last slid from the saddle that he almost stumbled and fell. With one hand on the reins he steadied himself, and Tarés came up to him before he had caught his breath.
"My lord, let me help you."
Aragorn granted the eager and concerned soldier a weary smile.
"The night's rest will be help enough. See to the men and let them help pitch the camp."
"I do not need a tent."
"Aye, sire. I will see it done." Tarés bowed and left, while Aragorn watched the Easterlings and Rohirrim dismount. Those unaccustomed to riding grimaced with pain, and though the King of Rohan could not be considered inexperienced on horseback, he bit back a cry as he was being lifted from his marshal's great bay. Shouts to erect the king's tent echoed through the deepening twilight, and six men quickly gathered to fulfil this task. Others helped to stack up a fire, and Aragorn slowly walked over to look after his friend, who had been carefully laid down to rest on two woollen blankets.
"I will bathe the wounds again," Aragorn muttered under his breath, and Tolgor left to bring the items he would need. Aragorn exchanged a tired glance with Elfhelm, who was crouching opposite him. "He should have stayed behind."
"Aye, sire, but you know him."
"His stubbornness exceeds his father's."
"I consider this a compliment," Éomer whispered and opened the eye Asentis' attacks had spared.
"I consider you foolish." With closed eyes he lowered his head for a moment, wiping his forehead.
"You look wretched yourself." Éomer tried to shift his position to oversee the preparations for the night, but thought better of it after a brief flexing of his muscles. While the pain in his chest had subsided to a more tolerable level, his leg was still causing him agony. "But you would not have waited either."
Tolgor provided water and bandages and his sack of herbs, and Aragorn thanked him for it.
"It is my land that lies under attack," the King of Gondor stated with determination, while he lifted the soaked and partly bloodied bandages. Elfhelm flinched compassionately upon the sight of the criss-cross pattern of stitches on his friend's skin. "I left when I should have stayed."
"I drew you into this," Éomer countered in a firm voice. "And I will accompany you to the end."
For the rest of the treatment, Aragorn remained silent, already having spent his arguments. Elfhelm knew from the concerned expression that the King of Gondor indeed felt like he had deserted his land in the time of need. But had not Rohan been in need of his attendance too? And how should Éomer have known of Gondor's own predicament? And though Faramir did not count as many years of warfare experience as he, Denethor's younger son was a capable leader in his own right and would make the right decisions.
"Riders were already sent to summon the forces," Éomer's marshal stated quietly, and Aragorn gave him a short apprehensive nod. "And on the way they will order the Dunlendings to expect us at the shores of the River Isen." Shifting his gaze, Elfhelm saw the soldiers working according to his orders, and the tent was almost ready. The Easterlings had been gathered in the centre again, but were allowed to prepare their own meals. The soldiers of both Rohan and Gondor stayed at a distance, but no one could be mistaken that they held the watch tight.
"There will not be much time for a parley," Éomer stated quietly. "If no results can be reached it must be adjourned."
"The desired peace with Dunland has been the reason for all that happened," Aragorn retorted. "And you should not leave without at least being sure that they are still willing to seek that peace."
"They will be."
Aragorn left his friend to be helped to his tent. A warm summer night covered the campsite, and he looked up to the starlit sky, but it was not only the sight of the endless dark blue that lifted his mood, but also the low humming he heard from Hilberon crouching at the fire. With a light smile the king went to his horse only to find it already unsaddled. His blanket and saddlebags had been placed on a flat rock. He was about to open his water-skin when a clamour behind him caught his attention. It was Dumarin's angry voice resounding, and a fearful shriek of an Easterling followed. Aragorn bridged the short distance to grab the soldier's arm before he could punch the frightened young man.
"Did I not order you to refrain from any retaliation?"
Dumarin clamped his mouth shut, tense to his core and almost breaking free with an angry movement. The Easterling fled at once.
"I am sorry, my lord," Dumarin hissed, "but that… man was about to attack me."
Aragorn let go.
"I will not believe this, and I will not allow any further action of revenge. Did I make myself clear?"
"Then you will accept being treated like a slave for a week and let them get away with it?"
"It is not for you to judge their doings, Dumarin son of Doran, and if you cannot remain peaceful I will sit in judgement over you."
Dumarin's face was contorted with anger and he could no longer remain silent. The week of captivity still kept him awake and he was seething with hatred.
"Yes, judge over me, but see what they have done to us! Done to you! Is that not worth any punishment? Shall they be treated like friends?"
"The verdict spoken will equal their deeds, but it is not for you to deliver it." With a last fierce stare the king left the soldier behind, hearing a muttered curse, but preferring not to react to it. He felt utterly spent, and knew the days ahead would not grant him any rest in which to recover. "Halamin!" The soldier came up to him, and having heard the short conversation, he already had a premonition of the king's demand. "Keep him away from them by any means. We cannot stand fights within."
"Aye, my lord. I will see what I can do." He bowed and left.
The guard changed, and still Ridasha did not find any rest. Though she had longed to dismount the whole day she could not sleep, as tired as she was. Her back and legs hurt, but Thor had assured her that this would end in due time. She had not found words to answer his kindness, and he had simply let her down carefully when they had reached the campsite. Now she could see him taking the place of an older red-bearded warrior. He exchanged a few words with him and then left the small fire for his watch. Ridasha's attention shifted to the King of Gondor. As opposed to the other king, he slept outdoors, and in the fire's gleam she could see his marred features. She bitterly remembered the night of the marking when she had watched his face contorting with pain, fighting the wake of the ritual. He now turned, and -- still asleep -- his left hand touched the spot where Harishdane had cut the sign of the Jásheni. Ridasha swallowed hard. The stout soldier he had reprimanded had been right: for the wrong-doing of her leader, no judgement had yet been spoken, and she feared the moment when the King of Rohan would name it. Glancing around, Ridasha found many of her kin awake, pondering over their near future. They had been granted their lives, but they still did not know what Éomer-king would have them do. And this was not the only uncertainty they all faced. Ridasha had learned from her kindred that indeed Harishdane had ordered all Easterlings to leave Dunland. Their task had been fulfilled the moment the King of Gondor had been claimed prisoner, and now they were crossing Dunland – not knowing when they would meet members of the tribes the Easterlings had supported for almost two years. Ridasha shivered. What would happen if they found out that none of her people remained in the settlements to help?
As she was about to draw up her blanket her gaze found the Gondorian King again. His brow furrowed, and as he moaned, his breathing sped up, his hands clenched into fists; but he was not awake. Before she realised what she was doing, she was on her feet, passing by soldiers and members of her kin to reach the healer. A soldier of his guard stepped into her path.
"Get back to your place," he ordered her, and though his voice was low she could not miss the determination. She looked past him. The king had come to rest on his back, but by the expression on his face he seemed to fight a foe only he could see.
"I can help him. Let me ease his suffering."
"You won't get any closer," he snorted and mirrored her side-step. "You brought him enough suffering already."
"It was not me," she pleaded. "Don't you know? I was the one to give him the mishénian leaves."
"And I am the one to deny you any further step in his direction."
"You don't understand. I will do him no harm."
"Go back or I will make you."
Ridasha gave in and stepped back, her eyes still on the king. His fight was not over yet.
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